Friday, January 29, 2016

MUNDANE MELANCHOLIA: a review of "Anomalisa"

Screenplay Written by Charlie Kaufman
Produced and Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Many years ago, while making one of my frequent trips to the now defunct local video rental store Bongo Video, I was happily engaged in one of my also frequent conversations with one of the movie enthusiast clerks on duty. On this one particular day, this clerk and I were intensely discussing Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), a film that I have placed highly upon my personal listings of the very best films of the decade between 2000-2009.

The clerk in question agreed with my feelings towards that film and truth be told, I  think he even went many steps further than myself. At one point, he passionately exclaimed that he hoped that Kaufman would never again make another film simply because he felt that "Synecdoche, New York" was not only so perfect, but so conceptually, philosophically, spiritually and artistically complete that there really was nothing else that could be said about the subject matter which revolved around nothing less than the concepts of how we live and most specifically, how we die. I, on the other hand, could not go that far personally, because for me, I felt that a creative talent as singular as Kaufman's demanded to be heard as often as he wished to voice it and I anxiously awaited whatever would arrive next...even though, I did also wonder what other subject could he even possibly tackle considering the completeness of what I feel to be his masterpiece.

And now, seven years on from the release of "Synecdoche, New York," Charlie Kaufman has, at long last, returned with a new film and in some ways, it feels fitting that he would accomplish this feat within a completely different medium. "Anomalisa," Kaufman's collaborative project with Co-Director Duke Johnson and based upon his original play, is a deep and lushly presented delve into the world of animated films, and yet it is no less provocative or furthermore, any less adult than any of Kaufman's past work, which includes his groundbreaking, peerless screenplays for Director Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Adaptation" (2002) as well as Director Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004). And yet, something this time felt, While Kaufman explores and mines some very difficult emotional, psychological and existential territory once again, the overall results felt akin to a dispassionate shoulder shrug, a quality I never expected to feel from an artist as daring, probing, and as deliriously inventive as Charlie Kaufman. So much so, that I am beginning to wonder if that Bongo Video clerk had been correct all along.

"Anomalisa" tells the tale of lonely, depressed and increasingly emotionally isolated self help author Michael Stone (voiced perfectly by David Thewlis) en route to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at a hotel customer service convention. While on his flight, in the cab ride to the hotel, checking into his room at the front desk and being aided by a bell boy and the room service attendant, Michael endures one banal, soul sucking non-conversation after another, during which every single voice he hears, regardless of age, race and gender, all sound exactly the same (and are all voiced brilliantly by Tom Noonan).

Michael Stone is consumed with loneliness, an increasing feeling of disconnect from his wife and young son and is haunted by the memories of Bella, an old flame with whom he disastrously reconnects in the hotel bar (again, all characters aside from Michael are voiced by Noonan).

But suddenly, Michael hears a female voice in the hallway just outside of his hotel room. Racing to find the source of the voice, Michael soon meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a painfully shy woman attending the convention who happens to be a fan of Stone's. The twosome share drinks together and return to Michael's hotel room for a long night of conversation and intimacy. Where Lisa does not find herself to be remotely special or interesting, Michael is captivated.

Now, that he has found a true individual, completely unique to everyone else in the world around him, will Michael finally be able to find true love and a sense of tranquility?

If I were able to solely rate a film over ambition and execution, then Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa" would be the very best film of 2015 without question. It is a gorgeously conceived and presented film with the stop motion puppet animation proving itself to be compulsively watchable as it's warm visual palate and rich, meticulous details keep your eyes riveted to the screen. The presentation of the film's humans is also conceptually startling as the faces all appear to have these subtle lines, as if the faces could detach at any moment. This is not necessarily a disturbing feature but one that plays beautifully into Kaufman's primary themes.

For an animated film, "Anomalisa" is indeed a very R rated adult film filled with mature themes alongside appropriately effective profanity and yes, there is even a sex scene of surprising intimacy. Even further, are the themes of feeling existentially displaced in the only world one can even exist within, which makes the technique of animation especially effective as we int he audience are able to view ourselves in a distinctly different fashion. The "mask-esque" quality to the faces speaks directly to Kaufman's themes of the masks that we all wear when navigating the world and how they play into the perceptions others make of us as well as the perceptions we have of ourselves, all of which may be correct or deceptive or even exist in a simultaneous or symbiotic state. There are points within the film where Michael sees people gradually beginning to appear as being completely identical to each other, something which flies in the face of his self help presentation speeches (a very sly, satirical touch) that compassionately praises the notion of the individual and the inherent quality of every single person's life. And the fact that these statements arrive from a character who is so sadly, and almost insufferably, misanthropic injects a powerful inner conflict that turns Michael inside out.

David Thewlis and Jenifer Jason Leigh turn in performances that are indeed marvelous, and multi-layered. As Lisa, Leigh is especially tender as she beautifully creates a character who is just dazzled that anyone in the world would take even one moment to pay attention to her. Her sense of self discovery over the course of the film is undeniably warming as well as humorously awkward. Lisa's penchant for Cyndi Lauper makes for one particularly delightful moment while also filled with a certain eggshell tension between herself and Michael.

It is here where Kaufman and Johnson's "Anomalisa" begins to exist within the same cinematic universe as both Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's off-kilter romantic delirium of "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002) and Writer/Director Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003), as this film also features two lost souls who almost magically find each other and begin to forge a soulful connection. Kaufman's script is very perceptive in the ways that people do tend to throw caution to the wind and completely reveal themselves when existing in situations where the possibility of seeing the other individual again is unlikely. Watching the spirits of Michael and Lisa begin to bloom was indeed as captivating as the visuals.

But remember, this is a Charlie Kaufman experience so everything is certainly not all candy and roses. And here is where the brilliance of Tom Noonan enters the proceedings. Having Noonan voice every other character in the film was a conceptual masterstroke. I should note that Noonan does not alter his voice to reflect gender, age or race, as he always utilizes that flat, monotone, Midwestern voice for everyone. Where Noonan does alter his voice is through the actual performances, giving every character, from Michael's wife, child, ex-lover and so on, a distinct personality even though Michael is unable to discern from one individual to the next.

Certainly, this tactic perfectly illustrates a quality of life I am certain that we all experience to varying degrees as we move day-to-day through the world. Days where we are just not able to deal with any other human beings. Days where the repetitiveness is numbing. Days where everyone we encounter actually does begin to sound exactly like everyone else. Days where we feel a disconnect from anything substantive or meaningful. Yet, for Michael Stone, he is essentially falling into an existential crisis, fearing that he will never differentiate between people again but also fearing that he is also losing sight of himself (as depicted in one nightmare sequence). Tom Noonan's performances, despite the apparent sameness, is truly one of startling diversity and tremendous empathy and alongside his co-stars, it is a shame that all three of them were not recognized during this current awards season.

Now, for all of this high praise, "Anomalisa" just didn't quite hit the mark as I am unable to award the film my personal highest rating solely based upon all that I have just described to you. Again, ambition and intent plus its gorgeous visual presentation is just not enough. I guess my issue with the film is that one it began reaching its end and definitely by the time it had concluded, the entire enterprise just gave me a feeling of...well..."meh." Ever since I have seen the film,  have been questioning as to what it was that I felt to be missing. At first, I wondered if I felt that I needed to have a stronger sense of resolution. But that being said, Kaufman and Johnson were bold enough to not wrap up the film into a tidy bow because sometimes, there is no resolution, there are no lessons learned, there is no growth and we just continue to spiral downwards. Even so, it all felt to be for naught, a middling exercise in navel-gazing, like the film was just misanthropic for the sake of being misanthropic, a quality which diffused the potency of its poignancy. To paraphrase that great song by Peggy Lee, by the end of watching "Anomalisa," I wondered to myself, "Is that all there is to a psychological breakdown?"  

Perhaps what I was looking for was a sense of emotional resolution or that feeling that I have received from past Kaufman works as he has turned a concept so fully inside-out, resulting in a sense of completeness, a feeling that he has truly exhausted every single conceptual, philosophical and spiritual element. I think of the unfiltered abandon with which Kaufman's screenplays for both "Being John Malkovich" and Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" (2002) circumvented every conceivable Hollywood cliche while rapturously diving deep inside the rabbit hole yet always following the story to its most logical conclusions. But, it was with "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," where Kaufman's exploration of the elusive and at times, unreliable qualities of memories and perceptions of self and others fueled what still just may be the most effective cinematic love story I have seen in over 10 years.

Yet what remains most powerfully is "Synecdoche, New York." Even nearly eight years after its release, its power and pull continues to be darkly profound and it possesses a certain chill that resurfaces anytime I happen to think about it. For his directorial debut, Kaufman created an experience that was triumphant and devastating. Anchored by a revelatory performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (man, do I miss him), "Synecdoche, New York" is a film that is almost impossible to describe. But utilizing the creative and inner life of an artist, with all of its inventiveness and failures and the psychological turbulence that ensues, Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" became an uncompromising, polarizing, demanding, labyrinthine and almost impenetrable film. It was essentially looking at a box inside of a box inside of a box and so on. And yet, it was still warmly enveloping with shattering empathy and grace.

I still contend that the film it not necessarily depressing but Kaufman defiantly forces viewers of that film to think about the very nature or existence and mortality in ways we would rather not. I have seen the film perhaps three times, and while I do have the film within my personal collection, it is indeed one that I have not watched in years because I know that doing so will again wrap me within its distinctly formidable cloak and refuse to relinquish its hold for quite some time after viewing it. The first time I saw it, I vividly remember not being able to really move from my theater seat even after the house lights went back up. I mention all of this because while "Anomalisa" did possess that similar uncompromising ambition and vision, the end result was slight by comparison. I am able to recall the feelings I had when I saw "Synecdoche, New York" easily, even after all of these years. "Anomalisa," on the other hand, I have barely given another thought in the few days since having seen it.

In fact, now that I ponder, I think Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), a film that was incidentally not written by Kaufman but by Jonze himself, is exactly the film that "Anomalisa" wishes it could have been as both films cover similar territory but Jonze's film probes so much deeper to truly make a sobering statement about our collective emotional health in the 21st century. "Her" is the film that cuts to the bone, much like the bulk of Kaufman's past work. where "Anomalisa" really is only skin deep.

And now, perhaps, I understand what that clerk from Bongo Video was talking about. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa" is nothing resembling a bad film but it almost feel like leftovers from past and better material. "Anomalisa" essentially doesn't really say anything new about Kaufman's familiar subject matter therefore leaving me with something that's really just grumpy and sad. I would hate to think that Kaufman has already expressed everything he has felt the need to express in the past as I still wish for him to have a fruitful creative future. But for now, and as I said before, with "Anomalisa," is that all there is?

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